Building bots for government IT
- By Paul McCloskey
- Nov 22, 2016
Government agencies and system integrators are moving into an era of streamlined applications and workforce efficiency, thanks to new tools for capturing data and replacing key business processes in software.
The hallmark of these services is the adoption of software robots and other tools that automate basic business applications and processes and that save agencies from having to build the applications themselves.
By consolidating steps for carrying out thousands of basic processes -- managing email or creating spreadsheets, for example -- and having bots carry out these tasks, agencies stand to reap considerable savings.
“This is not just a modest improvement of the status quo,” said John Timar, vice president of worldwide business development for TerraGo, a mobile-computing software firm serving government agencies. “Rather it is a completely disruptive innovation that dramatically lowers the cost of fielding high-end, tailored software solutions.”
The tools for creating the bots and bot farms to perform these software integrations have evolved from a subset of artificial intelligence advances called robotics process automation.
RPA is designed to make it easier for technology and business managers to use bots to automate interconnected business events, such as the procurement and invoicing processes typically used by many agencies and government offices. It can also automate ingrained processes like driver’s license registrations, license renewals and background verifications, all of which can go much faster because bots can outperform humans at such tasks.
“RPA provides you with a very simple way to automate a lot of transactions that humans are doing today so that bots can take them over,” said Abhijit Kakhandiki, vice president of products at RPA-platform provider Automation Anywhere. “Humans can act more as supervisors to those bots and do higher value things.”
Those higher value services might include, deciding which processes should be streamlined, working with cross-functional stakeholders and making sure “the process is providing the service your customer needs,” Kakhandiki said. “Those are difficult things that we need humans to do.”
The bots are taking on increasingly complex tasks. Automation Anywhere, for instance, offers an IQ bot with “vision skills,” which means it can “look at” any kind of structured data and make sense of it.
“We call these vision skills because they are better than the human eye,” Kakhandiki said. “Currently, if you look at invoice processing at all, it’s really humans who look at an invoice and try to make sense of it. And that’s what these bots do all by themselves.”
The firm’s bots are also equipped with language skills, Kakhandiki said, which allow users to perform sentiment analysis on a piece of text, including finding pointers, “that might help customer service reps figure out if a customer is angry at us.”
Bot production can also be ramped up on a seasonal basis for handling services in higher demand. During government tax season, for example, waves of digital workers can be generated to help agencies meet more challenging service level agreements set for the period.
Bot farms, which offer RPA tools as a service, can also be deployed to respond to sudden spikes in demand for back office processing and other operations necessary for responding to public safety events, such as a flood, hurricane or terrorist attack.
Impact of bots on jobs
The decision to adopt process automation technology often raises questions about whether software bots are taking jobs from IT workers traditionally focused on more routine business tasks.
The technology operates at the user interface, where it mimics user business processes, and it “frees up a lot of labor from the transactional end of the spectrum,” said Marc Mancher, a principal in Deloitte’s Federal Strategy & Operations unit. Deloitte has piloted process robotics initiatives with several different federal agencies.
The bots can improve service, including “the ability of the federal government to increase service levels and to do work that they weren’t able to do before,” he said. Organizations can add new software-based processes “on top of whatever processes they currently have,” he said, or to eliminate the number of steps required in existing business process
Mancher said the tools could be especially useful in government agencies often “constrained by a lack of ability to perform application integrations across the enterprise.“
“Think about an organization that has people opening a spreadsheet, extracting data from a spreadsheet, then moving that data onto an SAP or Oracle [enterprise resource planning application] because IT has not yet had the time or the money to connect those systems together,” he said.
A software robotics approach provides a more manageable way to speed and simplify these kinds of workforce processes by “helping train bots that automate repetitive tasks of medium complexity without changes to the existing process infrastructure,” Mancher said.
“Instead, we could have people doing financial analysis … looking at judgment-based problems at a place that collects revenue, like the IRS. Or if you’re in administration, somewhere like the [Department of Veterans Affairs], where you are managing benefits.”
Bots can also address government’s built-in financial challenges that limit its options in tackling large cross-agency measures. “In the federal government, we have unfunded mandates out there that we have to meet -- and we don’t get more in the budget,” Mancher said. “So we have to reallocate our funding to meet those needs.
“What this technology allows us to do in matter of weeks and months, versus years, is feather those systems together,” he said. “This technology can help us do this.”
“People who before were moving data back and forth,” now are working to solve strategic business problems.
Despite efforts by organizations and their workers to make application development faster and easier, end users can often get left on the sidelines.
While network managers might be able to communicate their preferences for new apps and platform features, for example, they seldom have access to the programming tools themselves. Now that’s starting to change.
“Computers have revolutionized our daily lives, yet the way we program computers has changed little in the last several decades," said Rajeev Alur, a professor in the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who leads a project to help end users perform simple programming tasks without having to write code.
The researchers are working on ways to give users more direct influence over choosing apps and developing the programing enhancements they might want in their tools, adding security features or policies, for example. “More and more people want to customize their devices in areas where traditionally people haven’t used programming,” Alur said. “They may want just a little bit of programming.”
The project is being supported by the National Science Foundation’s Expeditions in Computer Automated Engineering (ExCAPE), which aims to study technology that offers users automated assistance.
To give users access to programming tools, the researchers have been exploring the idea of “automated program synthesis,” whereby computers can help users generate code themselves using natural language commands or other non-code-based formats.
In one exercise, researchers used an example that allows a network manager to choose one of several options for managing traffic running on software-defined networks. “Traditionally if you were to get a router from Cisco it would come completely programmed, Alur said. “The functionality would be fixed, and the network operator at a specific organization would not be able to change that.”
“The problem is, however, that most network operators are not programmers,” Alur said. “So the question is, what functionality do you want to program on this? How do you actually program the switches and routers?”
In principle, a programmer could adjust the router, but that’s an expensive solution. The ExCAPE team recently addressed the shortcoming by creating a tool called NetEgg that lets a network admin specify desired functionality for a switch and then automatically generate the code needed to launch the application.
“You don’t need to learn a new programming language,” Alur said. “It’s like a simple visual interface where you just specify a few examples.”
“And the tool would generate the program that best fits your intent,” he said. “It’s a very simple way of programming that’s very lightweight and uses scenarios and examples that ordinary people can understand.”
Lightweight approaches to software coding are also drawing interest from mobile users in government agencies, where hierarchies around processes and personnel continue to slow agency systems.
Zero-code development could help overcome these barriers. TerraGo is using the approach to develop mobile business apps for its customers performing field inspections, utilities mapping, precision agriculture and pipeline surveys. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, for example, is using is using Terrago Edge service to inspect 4,000 miles of levee and dams annually.
“They need maps, they need forms, they need to work offline, and they have to comply with all sorts of data regulations” from Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Energy, TerraGo’s Timar said.
The company is helping “organizations create their own apps without having to write any code,” he said. “You don’t have to have developers necessarily on hand to customize an app and make it look the way you want it to look and have it perform the way you want to perform.”
Instead, users go through a process called the “design studio.” Rather than using coding tools, users are presented a layout that allows them to select features they want their app to have. After creating the application, users can target app stores for publishing the app -- essentially a push-button process, Timar said.
Apps are updated regularly, he added. Updates made to the code bases underlying the system will update all the apps that have been built with the system,” he added.
Zero-code development is the latest stage of what has been called rapid application development and low-code development platforms. “While low code provides multiple templates and a platform for development, you still have to have developers to code it all together,” Timar said.
“With zero code, you don’t have to stitch anything together, he said. “It’s all automated, and you don't have to maintain anything or keep any developers on staff.”
Of course, there will always be situations where more complex capabilities are required and extend outside the existing feature set available from zero code platforms, Timar said.
Early in the TerraGo’s history, the firm focused on a market looking for data collection and location information tools, Timar said. In time, however, the company realized that workflows had become more broadly applicable across business categories.
“At the end of the day, there’s not that much difference between what a police officer has to do when he or she is out in the field as from a utility worker or somebody who’s an environmental consultant,” Timar said. “They need structured data collection, they need location information and they need the ability to be effective off line and online.”